Just in case mind

When my grandmother died, she had a cellar full of old nails, pieces of string, tools she hadn’t used in years, old clothes, shoes, crockery and books. Having lived through two world wars and the depression, she did not like to throw anything away. Her flat upstairs was neat and tidy, but downstairs in the cellar was a different story. Hers was an era before ‘planned obsolescence’, where she used the same record player and radio she’d bought as a young mother after the war, right until her death. She valued her possessions and looked after them, treating everything with care and respect so it could last as long as possible. Yet she also had a cellar full of rusty nails she’d never use, old clothes which could have gone to someone else – all these possessions stored below, just in case.

Our mind is often the same – storing old information and memories ‘just in case’. We evolved like this to give ourselves the best chance of survival in an environment full of threats out in the open savannah. Anything with a hint of danger had to be remembered, and to be readily retrievable. I hear a funny rustling sound? I spin around in panic just in case. Perhaps it is the wind in the bushes, perhaps it is a tiger about to attack. But I’d better react immediately and instinctively, just in case.

Most of us would like to be able to move on more quickly from past hurts, to let bygones be bygones, to enjoy a beautiful afternoon walk in the park instead of stewing over something which happened days or weeks or even months ago. Our mind is full of rusty old nails we’ll never use, but which we cling on to in case they might come in handy one day. These patterns are hard-wired into our brains, and they’re designed to keep us safe. Unfortunately, this just in case mind can also bring with it a great deal of unnecessary suffering, and can significantly reduce our ability to enjoy life.

A regular mindfulness meditation practice can help us become more aware of these patterns, and to become less caught up in them. We do need some of this threat-based information, and it pays to look after it, just as my grandmother looked after her radio and other possessions all her life. We want to learn from our mistakes, to ask ourselves next time we find ourselves in a similar situation – ‘now remember what happened last time, that didn’t go so well, what might you do differently today?’ Yet much of our stress is caused by our just in case mind, that cellar full of rusty nails, and a regular mindfulness practice can help us clear some of that junk out, and choose to keep what’s actually important.

Weekly practice idea:

Write down some of the rusty old nails you keep in the cellar of your mind. In what situations do they mainly arise? By writing them down, you bring them out from the cellar of old memories into the living space of awareness upstairs, where it’s much easier to find an appropriate place to keep them (which may well be the rubbish bin!).

Anja Tanhane